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Time travel in Dhaka


'A century of shared hope' proclaims the hoarding. From other rooftops, there are equally bright, optimistic echoes. 'Get the lifestyle you deserve!' 'New generation. new destination!' And who can argue with such positive, meaningless exhortations? Meanwhile, down on the ground below, Dhaka grinds itself into morning life.

We are speeding through the broad streets of the city centre in another green baby taxi, heading for the Old Town. The breeze whistles through the open sides as we shoot along, dodging in and out of the confused rows of traffic (to call them 'lanes' would be to bestow on them an dignity they do not deserve). The early sunlight casts dappled splashes across the road, suddenly illuminating a sleeping old man, a mangy dog, a group of girls in coloured saris heading for the garments factories, while the rest of the scene falls back into deep purple shadow. The sky is, as ever, a very pale blue - pollution and smog ensure we never get beyond that. All is heat and haze.

At an intersection, we stop at a red light, (can I be sure you will appreciate the excellence of this achievement on the part of our driver's part?). Unfortunately, the driver of the mini-bus behind us, as battered as a leg of lamb wrapped in tin foil, is less aware of the semiotics of traffic lights, and he bumps into us, sending us all lurching a yard forward. Much remonstration and waving of arms from our doughty charioteer, whose pride at bearing two foreigners has also been dented by this incident. A slogan on the wall nearby reads 'Democracy is our future'. At the moment, a slightly safer present would be more than enough.

Heading down through the University Area we pass the elegant old British-era buildings, their Victorian grandeur still impressive - graceful arches, domes and cupolas suggesting the majesty of Empire, the days when this area was mighty, and the proverb 'What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow' was uttered with justifiable haughtiness.

But soon all that is left behind, and we are entering the Old City. Here the streets are narrower (though not as narrow as our memory had them, once again playing tricks. Or could it be that we have simply become far more used to things here, and the once exotic lanes feel like home?). The walls close in, and we trundle more slowly now past barbers, brightly-lit jewellers' shops, impossibly narrow steps disappearing upwards into the gloom, and a sudden view of sunlit pools where men and boys delight in washing and playing.

In many ways, the buildings down here look similar to most of the back streets of the city centre - the same concrete, the same rods and wires the detritus of half-finished construction. Every now and again, though, there is a hint of faded glory - a slender arch, a tower, a colonial balcony peeping over a wall. Everything is mottled and peeling - so it takes some effort to conjure up the elegance this area had in its heyday: a time of merchants, villas and banquets.

It is a curious feature of Old Dhaka that the only real landmarks, apart from the grandiose Pink Palace, where the dining hall has a table laid with dusty silver for 144 guests, are the churches, so we decide to make them our ports of call. Meanwhile, lest we forget where we are, high above us, the call to prayer rings out, the muezzin's voice floating and wrapping itself round the morning like a silk scarf.

Each of the churches, the Armenian, Anglican and Catholic (see pictures of Old Dhaka) is alive with memories and ghosts. The gravestones tell of early pioneers - missionaries and soldiers, who sailed out here into the tropical and dangerous heat, in search of glory. Perhaps foolhardy, they were certainly brave, and many died, as the monuments suggest, of disease, drowning or mutiny. Suddenly our modern-day version of this adventure seems terribly tame, our air-conditioned, air-planed, British-clubbed variety a pale echo of what these lost travellers lived through.

We come out of the churches into the dazzling streets, and climb into a rickshaw for the next leg of the journey, through the twisting lanes. Past a cinema festooned with lurid posters, its film promising yet another tale of good and evil, with the grotesque characters made up in an almost pantomime fashion. It all seems terribly simplistic, until you recall, with a jolt, that the free world is 'led' by a man whose vision of goodies and baddies is no more sophisticated than these stories served up for the illiterate masses.

Merchants spread out their wares all along the way - a cornucopia of bright plastic and coloured cloth. They smile genuinely and openly for the camera, apart from one cool customer, the bike repairman, who inhales on his cigarette and squints in the glaring light. Clearly he has missed his vocation as an extra in a Clint Eastwood film. We sit down for hot, sweet tea outside a garish temple in the Hindu market (2p a cup), and later indulge in a wonderful green coconut. Expertly, the coconut wallah slashes his knife across the top, nicking a small hole for the straw, and offering to the cool sweet juice inside.

Wherever we travel in this bustling place, there are people on the move. Dhaka is a city in perpetual motion. It is only occasionally that you see a moment of stillness - someone dozing in the shade, a child intent on a moving insect, an old woman gazing from a window. Then your view is suddenly obscured by more activity - a man with a basket of bananas balanced on his head striding past, a boy swinging out at a cricket ball, emulating the sporting superstars who dominate TV here, or a policeman wiping his brow in his eternal battle against the traffic.

Our journey ends up at the river, a teeming, sparkling place, where the shouts, the ships' horns and the sea-eagles assail your eyes and ears. We suddenly find ourselves with two new companions: a couple of teenage girls have befriended Jules in the twenty seconds between the turnstile and the jetty, and so all we set off onto the water in a long wooden boat. It soon becomes apparent that the same rules that govern road use apply to the water too, as huge boats bear down on us. Saved by the nimble oarsmanship of our wrinkly old boatman, we escape each time, only to find ourselves rising and falling like corks in the wake. Life in the ocean waves seems a distinct possibility, and it is with some relief that we regain the shore.

It is time to go back - another mad dash through the city to the leafy open spaces of Gulshan, which suddenly shines as brightly as Manhattan, the haunted echoes of the old city left far behind.

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